Guest Post: In Defense of Stale Bread

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon Press, 2012). His writings have also appeared in Gastronomica and The Believer. Here is his impassioned ode to stale bread:

In July 1913, The New York Times announced a Dutch invention—“exceedingly complex and scientific”—that would keep bread fresh “for an indefinite period.” Essentially a glorified ice chest, this was one of many early twentieth-century innovations that promised to banish stale bread forever.

By 1913, industry had begun to tame the unruly, biological nature of dough to the relentless pace of assembly line production. Consumers leaned breathlessly toward a future of bountiful cheap food, leisure, and social harmony made possible by industrial bread. Each slice of modern bread was an edible utopia.

Only one unacceptable reminder of bread’s natural life remained—one tiny realm of imperfection unconquered by science: even the most modern bread drifted inexorably toward entropy.

One hundred years later, the application of chemistry and engineering to bread baking has still not triumphed over staleness. Contrary to popular urban myth, even Wonder Bread decays. And I, for one, am glad.

What would we do without stale bread? How would we make the best French toast, top soups and salads with croutons, thicken sauces, or feed the pigeons?

I just wrote a book about America’s complicated love-hate relationship with industrial food, told through the story of our most iconic industrial food: super-soft sliced white bread. I’m interested in why past efforts to change Americans’ industrial diet have succeeded and failed (mostly failed), and what present-day food reformers can do better. Meanwhile, we’re going to have a lot of stale bread sitting around. Don’t just throw it out.

Here are two of my favorite uses for stale bread, drawn from the Mediterranean world, where salvaging old loaves is an art:

For slightly stale European artisan bread, make a Spanish bocadillo. Drizzle olive oil over two slices, of bread grill them in a hot pan, and then rub the crispy exterior with raw garlic. Sprinkle on a little salt and lemon juice. Then use the grilled bread as the base for a Spanish sandwich. My favorite contains garlicky braised kale, good sheep cheese, and a fried egg.

For really stale European artisan bread, try Italian ribollita. This is a use-up-what-you-have-around stew from Tuscany. Its vegetable ingredients vary depending on what you find at the bottom of your refrigerator—but it always includes cannellini beans and hunks of stale bread. “Ribollita” means “re-boiled” and refers to the process of softening stale bread in the stew. For best results, add the bread to the stew early enough to allow it to soak up lots of rich liquid, but late enough that it doesn’t dissolve completely. Recipes for ribollita can be found in many places. I adapted mine a long time ago from The Rose Pistola Cookbook.

P.S. Around the turn of the last century both Albert Edward Prince of Wales and John D. Rockefeller swore that a diet of stale bread could cure dyspepsia. Use your stale bread and you may never need to chew another Tums!

Editor’s Note: For a chance to win a copy of White Bread, comment below about your preferred use for stale bread. Entries taken until Friday at 5pm.

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20 Comments

  1. WilliamB
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget breadcrumbs.

    One of my favorite use-it-up dishes is timable, a baked dish which is closer to frittata than quiche. It calls for eggs, cheese, milk or cream, cooked vegetables and/or meat, and a lot of breadcrumbs.

    Another good use-it-up dish is croquettes – things like crabcakes and chix patties. These are often rolled in breadcrumbs before being cooked.

    Then there are all the other things that can be breaded before cooking: fried chicken, veal cutlet, scalloppini, fish, …

  2. Alex L
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    American style toad-in-the-hole! Just spread some butter on that stale bread, cut out a hole, and fry an egg – so delicious, and among the very few foods I have time to make for breakfast before work.

  3. Lisa D
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Bread pudding with lots of raisins and cinnamon! Yum!

  4. Adela
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    OMG! Stale bread + ripe tomatoes + vinagrette dressing = PANZANELLA! I could (and sometimes do) eat this stuff for dinner four or five nights in a row when tomatoes are in season. If you use fresh bread you just get glop, so the stale stuff is a must!

  5. ErinfromLongIsland
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    For slices, i crumble them to use to thicken sauces, soups, etc. for loaves, i sprinkle them with water, drizzle with oil, and pop them in the oven. As good as fresh!

  6. Posted March 8, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    I like to use stale bread for sage dressing to go with chicken. I love sage dressing so much!

  7. Chrissy
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    I don’t have a new or even exciting use for stale bread, but an old standby… bread crumbs!

  8. Emily
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I like to make croutons. I mix together butter, olive oil, garlic powder, salt, and some italian seasoning. Then I mix the pieces of bread in and try to get them evenly coated (seems impossible, though). Then I bake them till crispy. Homemade croutons make a salad into a treat!

    The book looks interesting!

  9. Megan
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    My favorite lately is overnight french toast – the stale bread soaks up the delicious filling in the fridge overnight and then you bake it in the morning. YUM! It is a good way to use up other leftovers too like half and half or fruit that is about had it.

  10. Posted March 9, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    For me, definitely panzanella salad; however, we always use our bread, and never seem to have any stale loaves lying around.

  11. Renee CA
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    It’s all been said. I got nothing but toast and jam. Would love to win, though.

  12. Pamela
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Hands down favorite use for day(s) old Challah bread is French toast with homemade honey butter syrup. :-)

  13. Abbey
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    My go-tos for stale baguettes are crunchy croutons seasoned with dijon mustard, parmesan, and olive oil or plopping a cheese-coated slice on top of any soup and broiling until browned and bubbly.

    One of my college roommate’s favorite uses for stale sliced bread is to make a “fish cheese” sandwich, which was essentially a french toast melt with kraft singles (the processed meltiness is a must!). Still not sure why it was called that, but it is now one of my favorite hangover foods!

  14. Katie
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I tried making my own bread crumbs out of stale bread for the first time last week, and it was a smashing success. They were great on homemade mac and cheese!

  15. Donna
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Sauté stale bread with some oil—crumbled up in stewed tomatoes along with leftover pieces of cheeses. Also use in meatloaf and make your own sausage patties. Since I live in a national forest I give out any crumbs left from bread, crackers and cereals to the birds. Hoping ravens don’t get there first before smaller birds. Also my Queenie likes hard stale French bread as a breakfast treat. She waits by back door every morning while I am making my tea and toast. Either dog biscuit or bread.

  16. Donna
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    PS not 5pm yet in California it’s 4:23pm

  17. Cindy
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    Oh darn, just saw this! But anyway, for stale white bread, Thai ground chicken or pork “toast”.
    Take 2 large eggs and beat with 1/2 tsp white pepper, 2 tsps cilantro, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp soy sauce. Then add 1/2 cup of ground pork or chicken. Take 2 slices of bread and cut them into quarters on the diagonal. Drench the bread in the mixture and fry them in a pan filed with about a quarter inch of vegetable oil until golden. Serve with cucumber and shallot salad. Not the lowest calorie appetizer, but pretty tasty.

  18. Lindsey
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Bread pudding!!

  19. Posted March 13, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks for all of your useful, yummy suggestions. I put all the names in a hat (including yours, Donna) and pulled out a winner–Megan, who I’ve emailed. Hope you enjoy the book, Megan!

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